Showing posts from October, 2006

Moral Minds

New York Times
October 31, 2006
Books on Science
An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

Who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential knowledge, generally assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or legal instruction, could turn out to have a quite different origin.

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are…


October 24, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist
New York Times

One Nation, Divisible

An American in Iraq has finally gotten it almost right.

J. D. Thurman, the major general who is the senior commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, has figured out the obstacle to America’s dream for Iraq.

“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman told The Times’s Michael Gordon, alluding to American efforts to unify Iraqis. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq.”

That’s a refreshingly candid alternative to the usual lines we hear about the Iraqi people’s patriotism and resolve. General Thurman predicted that Americans will keep struggling unless Iraqis put aside their differences. Quite right — and quite depressing, because they’re not about to do it, no matter what timetable the U.S. tries to impose.

But what’s stopping them is not selfishness. When General Thurman talked about the conflict between serving oneself and serving one’s c…

Positive feedback relationship

It is admittedly difficult to prove that mankind has changed biologically since, let us say, the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, if by "proof" you mean demonstration of sizeable gene differences. We cannot test the genes of Pericles or Caesar or their contemporaries. But neither was Darwin able to "prove" organic evolution in this sense. The evidence is indirect, inferential, but nevertheless, I think, conclusive.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because we know that mankind changes so greatly culturally that we can be so confident that it changes to some extent also genetically. When the environment changes, the only other necessary condition for the occurrence of genetic evolutionary change can be defined. This is the presence in human popluations of genetic variants, some of which confer upon their carriers a higher fitness....

Despite all the inadequacies of our present knowledge of human genetics, this can scarcely be doubted. What is more, since the env…

The likelihood of more recent genetic evolution

... the capacity for innovation in behaviorally modern humans materially speeded up evolution, because it led to frequent innovation, and every significant innovation created a mismatch with the environment and, therefore, new selective pressures. Look at the Bushmen: they're 4' 8" and hunt big game. They couldn't do it without poisoned arrows and, back before missile weapons, no one did: early humans were bigger and built like linebackers. The bow begat the Bushmen.

Take agriculture: the switch to reliance upon cereals cut protein intake almost threefold while reducing protein quality and greatly increasing the percentage of high-glycemic carbohydrates in the diet (along with other changes) That put huge areas of metabolism under selective pressure - towards more robust glucose regulation, towards changes that conserve protein, especially essential/scarce amino acids. Check out the distribution of diabetes - it's not 'thrifty genes', it's pre- and post…

Clothes unmake the woman

"Even after her husband was executed, Marie Antoinette defied her captors by ordering mourning dress, seeking solace in the illusion that had set her on her unlucky course: the notion that by controlling her image, she could master her fate. Bound for the chopping block, deprived of her widow’s weeds, she still contrived to have a clean-lined martyr’s costume smuggled into her cell. She was the first woman of whom it truthfully could be said that she shopped until she dropped"

Liesl Schillinger reviewing

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
By Caroline Weber

in The New York Times Book Review

Bred for Agression

Nicolas Wade once again identifies some meaningful research and makes it available to the general reader. If such work in neuroscience and genetics shows how brains, including human brains, predispose us to certain kinds of productive or counterproductive actions, why don't our modes of intervention (including, of course, punishment) reflect such findings? We are caught in a vicious cycle where adverse environments reinforce genetically influenced behviour. This is cause for much pessimism, particularly since a whole welfare industry with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo tends to frustrate achieving any real modification, if modifications can indeed be made in laissez faire societies....


October 10, 2006 ~ The New York Times

Flyweights, Yes, but Fighters Nonetheless: Fruit Flies Bred for Aggressiveness

By Nicholas Wade

What can stand on its hind legs and duke…